In this novel Aristide Saccard, who followed his brother Eugene to Paris in the hope of sharing the spoils of the Second Empire (La Fortune des Rougon), was successful in amassing a vast fortune by speculation in building-sites. His first wife having died, he married Renee Beraud du Chatel, a lady of good family, whose dowry first enabled him to throw himself into the struggle of financial life. In a magnificent mansion which he built in the Parc Monceau a life of inconceivable extravagance began. The mushroom society of Paris was at this period the most corrupt in Europe, and the Saccards soon came to be regarded as leaders in every form of pleasure. Vast though their fortune was, their expenses were greater, and a catastrophe was frequently imminent. Renee, satisfied with prodigality of every kind, entered on an infamous liaison with her husband’s son, a liaison which Aristide condoned in order to extract money from his wife. Rene ultimately died, leaving her husband immersed in his feverish speculations.
The novel gives a powerful though unpleasant picture of Parisian society in the period which followed the restoration of the Empire in 1851.
After a disastrous speculation, Aristide Saccard (La Fortune des Rougon and La Curee) was forced to sell his mansion in the Parc Monceau and to cast about for means of creating a fresh fortune. Chance made him acquainted with Hamelin, an engineer whose residence in the East had suggested to him financial schemes which at once attracted the attention of Saccard. With a view to financing these schemes the Universal Bank was formed, and by force of advertising became immediately successful. Emboldened by success, Saccard launched into wild speculation, involving the bank, which ultimately became insolvent, and so caused the ruin of thousands of depositors. The scandal was so serious that Saccard was forced to disappear from France and to take refuge in Belgium.
The book was intended to show the terrible effects of speculation and fraudulent company promotion, the culpable negligence of directors, and the impotency of the existing laws. It deals with the shady underwoods of the financial world.
Mr. E. A. Vizetelly, in his preface to the English translation (Money. London: Chatto & Windus), suggests that Zola in sketching Saccard, that daring and unscrupulous financier, “must have bethought himself of Mires, whose name is so closely linked to the history of Second Empire finance. Mires, however, was a Jew, whereas Saccard was a Jew-hater, and outwardly, at all events, a zealous Roman Catholic. In this respect he reminds one of Bontoux, of Union General notoriety, just as Hamelin the engineer reminds one of Feder, Bontoux’s associate. Indeed, the history of M. Zola’s Universal Bank is much the history of the Union General. The latter was solemnly blessed by the Pope, and in a like way